When Is Asbestos Dangerous?

Asbestos is dangerous because its fibres enter the human body through breathing them in. The substance itself is not considered dangerous when it is left undisturbed. However, when disturbed it releases dust or fibres into the air which can then be ingested. The fibres then become attached within the mucous membranes of the throat and nose. These can be removed, however fibres are likely to pass deep into the lungs or the digestive tract. Once asbestos fibres are trapped in the body, they will cause health problems.

There are numerous asbestos-containing materials around the world which are in everyday use. These fall under two broad types of asbestos: friable and non-friable.

What is Friable Asbestos?

Friable asbestos refers to asbestos that can be crumbled by hand which releases fibres into the air. Materials that are friable are more likely to release levels of asbestos in the air that poses risks to health.

Examples of friable asbestos materials are:

  • Fire retardants sprayed with asbestos
  • Types of thermal lagging such as pipe insulation
  • Low density boards
  • Sheet vinyl underlay or backing

What is Non-Friable Asbestos?

Non-friable asbestos (also known as bonded asbestos) is asbestos-containing materials that are firmly bound within the material itself. If left undisturbed, these materials will not release dangerous levels of asbestos so they pose a lower risk of health. Examples of bonded asbestos-containing materials include:

  • Cement products with asbestos (sheeting used in walls that are flat and corrugated, ceilings and roofs, moulded items like downpipes)
  • Vinyl floor tiles (if you remove the glue then it becomes friable)
  • Ceiling tiles

Any damage or deterioration of asbestos-containing materials will increase their friability. Fibres can be released through water damage, continuous vibration and aging. Physical impacting of materials by buffing, cutting, drilling, grinding, sawing or striking can break materials down, increasing the likelihood of fibres releasing.

Health Effects of Asbestos

Asbestos fibres are hard to destroy, meaning the body cannot break them down once they become lodged within the lungs and body tissue. By remaining in place, they will cause disease. In the UK there are around 2,500 deaths from asbestos-related diseases each year.

There are three main diseases that are caused by asbestos exposure:


Asbestosis is a serious respiratory disease caused by fibres aggravating lung tissue, causing them to scar. The symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and a dry crackling sound heard in the lungs when inhaling. Once the disease reaches the advance stages, it may cause cardiac failure.

As the disease is usually disabling or fatal, there is no treatment for asbestosis that is effective. The risk of contracting asbestosis is low for those who do not work with asbestos daily, and neighbourhood or family exposure is very rare. If you work in demolition or renovation, the risk is high depending on the age of the building, the nature of the exposure and precautions taken.

Lung Cancer

People who mined, milled and manufactured asbestos and its products have an increased risk of lung cancer than the general population. Symptoms of lung cancer include coughing, a change in breathing, shortness of breath, persistent chest pains and anemia.

A HSE study into the Joint Effect of Asbestos and Smoking found that if you are exposed to asbestos and are also a smoker, the risk of developing lung cancer is greater than those just exposed to the fibres.


Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that occurs in the thin membrane lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen and (albeit rarely) heart. The vast majority of mesothelioma cases are linked to exposure to asbestos. According to Cancer Research UK, there are around 2,700 mesothelioma cases in the UK each year with 2,500 deaths linked to the disease each year.

What Determines the Risk of Developing Asbestos-Related Diseases?

 1. The amount of exposure and duration

If you are exposed to asbestos for longer periods of time, the more fibres will enter the body, which increases the likelihood of developing health problems.

2. Whether you’re a smoker 

If you smoke and have been exposed to asbestos, you are likely to develop lung cancer more than who doesn’t. The only way to reduce risk is to stop smoking.

 3. Age 

The incidence rate for Mesothelioma is highest in 80 to 84-year-olds in the UK, according to Cancer Research UK. It’s dangerous to children if they are exposed, which is why measures must be put in place to avoid exposure to asbestos in schools.

How To Protect Yourself from Asbestos Exposure?

The best ways protect yourself from asbestos include avoiding asbestos altogether (if possible) but if you are exposed to it, you need to make sure you are wearing protective gear. If you work around asbestos, it is vital you educate yourself. SSD Online Asbestos offers online asbestos awareness courses for you:

Participants can take the courses online with 24-hour access available, so they can be taken at any time. They can usually take no longer than two hours and instantly generate a certificate. Education is the best protection from contracting asbestos-related exposure.

For more information, get in touch with the asbestos specialists today.